A well-oiled machine
By the time Gears of War 4 rolls onto Xbox One in late 2016, the Gears of War series will be over ten years old. A decade of chainsaw rifles, curbstomping, and monster thrashing is behind it now, and like all of us it's gathered a fair share of knick-knacks along the way. But while a person might find they've collected a few too many snow globes or commemorative t-shirts over the years, the Gears series has collected new story features and gameplay mechanics.
The old saga of Fenix and friends is over, and with the days of J.D. and Kait about to begin, now is the ideal time to figure out what series mainstays should stay and which should go. To do that, Gears 4 will have to focus on what made Gears great in the first place - a small but quality cast, air-tight cover shooting, drama and extravagant action that never feels tacked on. Heres where to start in getting Gears 4 into prime shape.
Keep two-player co-op ONLY
Four-player co-op messes up Gears of Wars core gameplay. Actual fact. Yes, it adds an explosive, rangey, anarchic vibe missing from the first two games, and brings in a ton of new enemies and hardware to fill out the space, but you know what? All of that stuff, from gameplay focus to mechanical elements, is absent from its predecessors for a reason. When Gears loses its focus, when it becomes bloated, mad, and spectacular rather than tight, tactical, and exhilarating, it stops being Gears.
Cliff Bleszinski said during the press-run for Gears of War 2 that he wouldnt raise the co-op count. He said that doing so would break the flow and priorities of the game, and turn it into something else. A few years later he proved his old self right. Gears 3 is virtually a shooter from a different series. Where I love the earlier games for their demanding, precise, back-to-the-wall strategy, the third game is pretty much a spam-fest, with reduced difficulty, and far too many allies running around the place doing any remaining work for you. But well come back to that point.
No Lambent or drill-gun
Gears of War is a cover-shooter. Gears of War perfected the cover shooter. Its weighty, its tightly strategic, it feels dangerous, and it operates by sharp, simple, clearly defined rules. Thats why it works. Thats why its so endlessly entertaining, in either campaign or multiplayer. And thats how it needs to stay.
Were probably not looking at the return of the Locust, unless the new game pulls one hell of a cheap bait-and-switch with Gears 3s ending, but lets make sure the new enemies operate in the same way. Lets make them tough, and aggressive, but bound by the rules of cover. Lets not have any more of the later series tentacles and goop lolloping around the place, muddying the boundaries and fighting distances, making a mockery of the rules of warfare. And lets certainly not have any more guns whose ammo can drill underground and pop out behind cover. Thats just taking a great big dump on the very conceit the series is built upon.
Bring back the Hammer of Dawn, but keep it tactical
There's little arguing that the Hammer of Dawn - Gears' trademark satellite-based death laser defense system - qualifies as one sick piece of equipment. Once you've honed on a target with one of the Hammer's gun-shaped remote controls, a few seconds of calibrating gets you ready to vaporize everything foolish enough to still be standing in its way when it hits the dirt. It's hard to deny how sweet it looks when it's wiping all of your enemies off the map.
Unfortunately, looks is really all it's good for, since its immense power would be game-breaking if it was allowed to be part of your core arsenal. Mostly it's there to look cool and be appropriately explosive at the right moments. That point-and-click spectacle would get dull indeed if the weapons iconic nature led to overuse. We're all for this overpowered laser-creation returning in Gears 4, but if it's going to make an impact its appearances have to be handled with finesse. Keep its use limited, and construct fights in ways that heighten the drama of letting the Hammer loose. With the kind of kick this weapon is supposed to have - story-wise and in-game - designing it to be used more sparingly will give it the credit it deserves.
Keep battle areas tight and controlled
Don't get me wrong, huge open battlefields with bullets zipping through the air and explosions echoing in the distance are great spectacle. They look great in trailers and screenshots and when you're showing off your new purchase to friends. But they're just not that much fun to play. That's because you don't really conquer a huge battlefield so much as you survive it. Too often you'll be cutting down your fifth or sixth grunt only to get blasted by a freaking Ticker who waddled in from off screen. It's a grind that can end in an instant because your attention can't be in 12 places at once.
On the flip side, a tight, tactical battlefield can feel far more rewarding even if it lacks the visual overload of a Michael Bay movie. Gears' best battles make you think about where the enemies are placed and what weapon would be most effective at weeding them out. Then an emergence hole or some other hazard will erupt on the scene and you'll have to adjust your strategy on the fly. This mental re-evaluation is what keeps you on your toes, and makes you feel accomplished when you finally fell the last enemy.
Strip back the size of the cast
Gears of War 3s expanded cast takes over the fighting at every opportunity, but the problem (another caused by four-player co-op) doesnt stop there. Theres also the narrative vibe to consider. The first Gears of War is brilliant partly because its so stripped back, so stark. Its so compelling because its the story of a small bunch of survivors, cut off from their home base, with only each other to rely on through the course of an increasingly dark nightmare. Its an uneasy, horror-tinged war story with a heavy sense of isolation. Its Predator, basically, with the jungle swapped for blasted cities. A pressure cooker of tension, that plays directly into the combat.
Gears 3 does the opposite, bloating its roster with so many interchangeable newbies in so many disparate locations, whenever the over-sized, globe-trotting plot dictates, that nothing really matters any more. Lets have the good stuff back. Lets have minimal cast members, maximum cast resonance. Lets make a Gears of War like it used to be; a small, creepy, tense, intimate fight for every foot of survival.
Don't let friendly AI beat everything for you
It never hurts to have some help, especially when your allies are smart enough to act as actual teammates rather than glorified escort-mission objectives. But while you definitely want those allies to be smart enough to function alongside you in battle (rather than the alternative), Gears of War 3 has a habit of swinging the other way. Suddenly the player is the expendable one, and even on normal difficulty the AI will beat the game without you. And I don't mean figuratively.
This one will take more than technical balancing, since it's clearly part of the decrease in difficulty the devs were going for at the time. While a noble effort to make the game more playable overall, making it so easy that the game plays itself isn't a good solution. Changing the difficulty so that your teammates can assist you, but won't clear the field without your help, will be essential to making Gears 4 playable, instead of falling on the extreme ends of the difficulty spectrum.